Monday 12 August 2002

Margaret Bourke-White & online books

Jeff Ward wrote:

I’ve been radically unsuccessful at anything resembling normal sleep for a couple of days now. I was supposed to be on the road to visit my parents, but I’ve ended up researching an idea. You see, in a few weeks I have to start writing a a book. I hadn’t figured out exactly what I was going to do. The course is “extended topics in nonfiction” and the quantity of writing involved will be massive. I feel much better dealing with something I’m comfortable with. Photography was my first choice, but specifically, what?

I’ll use the blog to string it together first. I like the idea of doing it in public; it will be like having advance reviewers. The working title thus far is Imaginary Heroes: The Rhetoric of Representation in 1930s America. Rolls right off the tongue, eh? I began to think of this while reviewing significant documentary photography books published between 1937-1941. The list was small at first, but it’s been expanded a bit with a few books that I wasn’t aware of until now.

Jeff’s list includes Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by Walker Evans and James Agee (of course), You Have Seen Their Faces by Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell, and An American Exodus by Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor.

This is a marvellous idea for a book and, given how much I’ve learned from Jeff’s ideas about Walker Evans, I can’t wait to read the book as it takes shape since Jeff is ideally qualified to write about the documentary photography of that (or any other) era.

For me though, no-one holds a candle to Walker Evans. I’ve always thought that Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange are monumentally overrated—the former melodramatic, the latter sentimental, both their reputations inflated by virtue of their sex. It’s as though curators, desperate to include some women from that period in the documentary pantheon, had to settle for work which, had it been done by a man, would have been regarded as competent but undistinguished. (I have no doubt that Jeff will demonstrate conclusively why I’m wrong and that’s one reason I look forward to reading his book.)

Perhaps this is simply a matter of taste, or ignorance. Although I hold Bourke-White and Lange in low regard, I adore the work of their near contemporaries Lisette Model and Helen Levitt. When I taught the history of 20th century photography, the classes devoted to Model and Levitt were invariably well-received—particularly by students who’d assumed that Diane Arbus was the only important woman photographer.

I used to devote a class to the work of either one or a pair of photographers: Bourke-White and Lange shared a double bill (as did Ansel Adams and Henri-Cartier Bresson). Model, Levitt, and Arbus rated a class each. Over the sixteen week semester, I’d show 21 photographers (11 whose work I loved, and 10 whose work I thought was important but didn’t much like at all). I realize now how I imposed my prejudices on the students but at least they were clearly stated.

No matter how much I dislike Margaret Bourke-White, she took one photograph that influenced my own picture-making enormously:

Margaret Bourke-White: Henlein's Parents, Reichenau, Sudeten Section of Czechoslovakia, 1938
Margaret Bourke-White: Henlein’s Parents, Reichenau,
Sudeten Section of Czechoslovakia, 1938

When I first saw this picture, in John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs, I nearly fell over, captivated by the way that Bourke-White had (perhaps accidentally) achieved a perfect balance between the interior flash and the external daylight, pulling everything into a single plane. It’s an absolutely remarkable photograph: about picture-making (look at all the pictures within the picture, including the windows, as Szarkowski points out below); about generations (the portrait of—probably—Henlein’s grandfather on the wall behind his father and that of his grandmother on the wall behind his mother, reflected in the mirror); and about history (what will become of them when the Nazis arrive? Or have they already taken over?).

Szarkowski writes in the accompanying text:

Bourke-While had an excellent sense of simple, poster-like design, and a sophisticated photographic technique, both perhaps the legacy of her apprenticeship in the demanding field of industrial reportage. She was excited by the new opportunities presented by photoflash bulbs, which made possible clear and highly detailed pictures under circumstances that would otherwise have been difficult or impossible for photography. The use of two or three bulbs, synchronized to flash together as the shutter was released, could produce a reasonable simulation of normal interior light. Bourke-While became very skillful at this technique, which required especially delicate calculation when the level of the interior flash had to be balanced against the level of natural light visible through a room’s windows. According to the accepted formula the outside landscape should be about twice as bright as the interior: otherwise the images seen through the windows would look like pictures on the wall.

In the case of the picture opposite, the photographer evidently miscalculated a little, but the picture is surely more interesting as it is than it would be if naturalistically correct. The two kindly old people sit in a room that is hermetically sealed with illusions.

I was so taken by this photograph that I think I may have said to my friend Gerrit Fokkema: “I will never, ever take a picture without flash again.” And for many years all my pictures, whether taken indoors or outside, used flash to balance the illumination and flatten the picture plane, just as Margaret Bourke-White taught me.

<aside>I’m selfishly waiting for Jeff Ward to start writing his book online. Ever since Steve Himmer and Joseph Duemer discussed writing a novel online, I’ve been seriously considering writing my own book about post-war Japan publicly. I think I’ll hold back to see how Jeff approaches the activity but ever since he broached the subject my sleeping patterns have been shot to pieces too.</aside>

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I particularly liked the picture of the boots, and through the door at the lamp. My favorites.

Posted by Burningbird on 14 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

...but it's the writing that absolutely captivates me about "Let Us Now Praise Famous men". The imagery in the words.

Posted by Burningbird on 14 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour